Not the Hollywood movie where death gets a guided tour of planet earth, but the other Mr Black, where you get to see the King of Cabaret Noir in a fantastically hilarious one-man show that involves bawdy songs, the cutest glockenspiel and Lady Gaga spoofs galore.
It was by pure luck and by dint of tons of cyber-stalking (the harmless kind) that I recently managed to catch Mister Joe Black himself live in London. I’d been trying to coincide my travel plans with one of his UK shows for ages and finally it happened. The one free night I had in London happened to be the night when Joe Black was performing in Camden together with that other legendary noir performer, Voltaire. Two birds with one stone, epic win.
The performance was every bit as “charmingly demented” (Theatre Press Australia), “suitably wicked and woeful” (The Londonist) and “shockingly beautiful” (Music Video Sunday) as the reviews had promised. From the first bars of The Rumour Song to the very last act – a totally madcap rendition of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance that alternates between the seductive, the psychotic and the slapstick and that had the crowd near well rioting – I had a massive, gleeful grin on my face.
Because Joe Black surely knows how to turn up the heat at a party. Totally uninhibited, with a very distinctive voice, an irreverent cheek that only makes him more attractive and, of course, that look that so screams “le freak, c’est chic” – as Rockstar Magazine so eloquently put it when it dedicated no less than January’s front cover to the self-styled waltzing cynic. What Joe Black gives the punters is entertainment in its pure, unadulterated form. Leave all prejudiced misconceptions at the door and allow yourself to simply be blown away.
What was Joe Black the child like?
He collected insects, drew a lot of pictures, was a bit of a nervous child… Quiet perhaps, and odd.
And how did he grow up to become Mister Joe Black?
On a diet of sex, drugs and vaudeville of course!
How do you describe your image, your music, your art?
The idea was to be a throwback to 20’s and 30’s Berlin, combining qualities of cabaret from that time together with a dash of Victorian music hall and American vaudeville! I wanted to be something grotesque, but inviting at the same time.
Memories of your first performance?
My first show consisted of one song at a charity art exhibition. Before I went on stage I was shaking I wasn’t sure terribly sure that I could do it after all. But well, once I started I couldn’t stop. And by the end of the song everyone stood up from their chairs and applauded. It felt like the room was shaking. I was hooked!
How have your acts changed since then?
Massively. When I first started, I used to sing purely in a kind of Tom Waits growl, though now I kind of combine two styles! Sometimes my voice is raspy, sometimes I sing a sweet tenor… sometimes it escalates to a killer of a roar that can lead to microphone problems.
One of your most exciting performances was?
Going on stage at the Wave Gothic Treffen Festival in Germany was quite thrilling. I thought it was going to go really badly as the rest of the bands were incredibly heavy. And I was headlining the venue that time round. Then when it actually started it went like a dream. Beautiful audience, beautiful show.
And the funniest/scariest?
I supported a psycho-billy band when I first started out in Brighton. That was terrifying! The audience hated me and started throwing stuff! But there’ve also been a lot of hilarious moments, it’s so difficult to pinpoint one. Usually I’m into fits of laughter when something that I’m not expecting happens.
Do you get nervous and if yes, what helps?
I don’t often get nervous! It only seems to happen if I’m waiting around for a long time before I go on. Then, yes. How do I deal with it? Usually I just stand by the side of the stage swinging my arms and bouncing up and down!
Have you ever had a fan overstep the boundaries/turn into a creepy stalker/ or something equally exciting?
Yes… yes I have. It’s usually lovely when someone is really enthusiastic, although sometimes it can go a bit too far! Following you back to your hotel is one that really unnerves me! Though I have to say that being followed around shops is quite funny. I start walking in random directions and see how long they’ll follow me for!
Which is your favourite country to perform in and why?
Ireland is pretty great. The audiences there have a real passion for live music and it’s always incredibly heart warming. I also love performing in Germany, the crowds really seem to get it there! German audiences are very much like the Irish, in that they have a genuine passion.
Do you have a typical day and if yes, what does it look like?
If I’m doing a show? Usually it’s panic that I haven’t got everything with me, pacing up and down and checking all the bags! Having said that I always tend to arrive early for things and I end up waiting around for ages before I can start getting ready. If I’m not doing a show I wake up in the afternoon and stay glued to the laptop until I feel like everything is done. Then perhaps I’ll have a nice cup of tea. Isn’t that nice?
Do you have a “typical” audience?
No, no a million times no. My audiences have a massive span. When i first started out I had always thought that my audiences would be the young alternative types. But now I look out and I see people aged anything between fourteen and seventy. And it’s all kinds of people! It’s fantastic to see so many people connecting with the music.
How is your show perceived by mainstream audiences? Do you think dark cabaret still has a place in today’s entertainment scene?
Usually pretty well actually! Of course, those who are easily upset never seem to be able to last the whole show! Although I have to say that I’m always surprised by the amount of people who I’d expect would hate it but who actually really enjoy themselves and come back again and again for my shows. Dark cabaret will always have a place in society, as long as people are willing to go watch.
Which of your own acts is your favourite and why? And which one is the biggest crowd pleaser?
My personal favourite to perform is a song that I wrote, called the Sick Love Sick Love Song! I was so proud of that song and I really love being able to perform it live. As the name implies, it was written with the aim of being at once the sickest and most twisted love songs I could imagine – but at the same time, as being the most heartfelt! The biggest crowd pleasers are usually the pop covers. Britney Spears’s Hit Me Baby One More Time and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance always drive the audience wild.
If you weren’t doing this you’d be…?
What do you do when you’re not on stage/preparing to be on stage?
I can usually be found staring into the cold recesses of oblivion. Or smoking. Or drinking gin. One of the three….
Do any elements from the persona of Mister Joe Black survive even off stage?
Well, no! Not really. It’s not a complete transformation on stage of course, because I am still me. But i’m a lot calmer off stage, much more soft-spoken. Of course, if you get a few drinks in me it pretty much blurs the lines between the two!
Favourite author, favourite musician, favourite actor – and why.
Author, A. M. Homes. Dark, twisted, beautiful. Musician, Tom Waits. Off the wall and so very raw, I love it. As for actor , I’m actually really rather fond of Nathan Lane. I don’t really have a favourite, though he springs to mind. He is so funny and so good at changing roles.
And your favourite dark cabaret act?
I have a lot of love for The Tiger Lillies and for Jill Tracy, though there are so many wonderful acts out there I’d hate to say I had a favourite!
Which instruments do you play and which is your favourite?
The piano, the accordion and the ukelele are my main instruments. Although I do play a lot of others, usually just for recording – harp, mandolin, guitar, banjo, the musical saw… I sometimes bring them along for the bigger shows. Sometimes I also bring a little glockenspiel out on stage. Just like a piano, but played with sticks.
You always looks so fabulous. Do you ever have off days? Or maybe just simple wardrobe mishaps?
Of course, if I’ve had a rough couple of nights then the makeup just won’t take and it looks really thrown on. There have also been times when I forget to grab the right clothes and I have to improvise!
Where do you hail from and do you perform in your home town regularly?
I come from a city called Portsmouth on the south-coast of the UK, where I have a residency at a beautiful Edwardian theatre there. I perform in Portsmouth about four times a year; I have my own show in January and then I host and organise a show called House of Burlesque three times a year.
Your show might be considered shocking for some: has anyone’s “righteous indignation” ever rained down on you and if yes, what was your reaction?
Ah well, I’ve gotten so used to that now! There will always be someone really righteous who just can’t keep their mouth shut! It’s good to just laugh it off, then no one else will pay attention to it either.
What’s next for Mister Joe Black?
Well, right now? I’m hungry and there’s sushi in the fridge! From a show perspective, next up is a show on March 16 at the OST Klub in Vienna, Austria